Living with the Truth Stranger than Fiction This Is Not About What You Think Milligan and Murphy Making Sense

Sunday, 2 December 2007

Thinking outside the box

Question: Would you rather see a child read a comic than not read? I'd be disappointed with anyone who suggested the latter. I'd rather see them reading the back of a milk carton than not read.

Not everyone out there is like you or I. Not everyone gets excited by words like we do. Not everyone cares about reading. Books are for steadying table legs. That's about the only way they'll ever change the world.

I'm not going to debate whether books are a luxury or a necessity. Certainly Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs doesn't list reading amongst its baseline physiological needs. But for an organism to develop, to be all it can be, its cognitive and aesthetic needs must be satisfied. And that's where comics come in. Let me tell you about The Comic Book Project:

The Comic Book Project is an arts-based literacy and learning initiative hosted by Teachers College, Columbia University with materials published by Dark Horse Comics.

The goal of the project is to help children forge alternative pathways to literacy by writing, designing, and producing original comic books.

The Comic Book Project puts children in the role of creators, rather than merely receivers of information. Children write and draw about their personal experiences and interests, thereby engaging them in the learning process and motivating them to succeed in school, after school, and in life.

There used to be a time when graphic storytelling was pooh-poohed but comics have changed a lot since I started reading them back in the sixties. If someone had suggested writing a graphic novel (not that the term existed back then) dealing with the Holocaust and featuring mice I shudder to think what the reaction would have been. And yet Art Spiegelman's Maus: A Survivor's Tale does exactly that. It recounts the struggle of Spiegelman's father to survive the Holocaust as a Polish Jew. In 1992 it won a Pulitzer Prize Special Award. A comic won a Pulitzer.

Maybe one day a blog will win a Pulitzer.

People are always quick to point out the limits of a particular medium: Oh, you can't do that. It was never designed to do that. Besides, no one will get it.

There are crap comics out there but there are crap novels too. The term "novel" is one of those terms, like "symphony", that carries a certain weight. People who write novels or symphonies are serious contenders. And the less said about comics and blogs the better.

Writing is all about communication. I want what I'm writing to matter. If sticking three chords under it will help then fine. If adding pictures in four colours to it helps then fine. If converting it to ones and zeroes helps then fine.

I think The Comic Book Project is an important and worthwhile venture. Getting kids to read comics is one thing, a good thing, but taking it to the next level is vital. The novelist Neil Gaiman gained a large audience with his comic books before concentrating on novels and that audience went with him.

Actually a comic book script is every bit as complicated as a film script. Have a look at some of the examples at The Comic Book Script Archive in particular the very detailed example from Neil Gaiman's Sandman.

When I was young all the action in my comics took place inside the panels. Later, as artists started to get bolder, the characters would break out of these boxes. It's a good metaphor for what comics have done, they've broken the mould and become more than anyone could ever have imagined they could be.


dick jones said...

Absolute agreement. Comic book art came of age decades ago & educationalists have, by & large, doggedly ignored its potential ever since. Strange when one considers that in the UK the Rev. Marcus Morris founded the Eagle in 1950 &, via the talents of Franks Hampson & Bellamy, provided the literate, well-plotted Dan Dare stories. How many book-shy kids must have overcome lack of access or conquered prejudice thanks to The Pilot of the Future?

Jim Murdoch said...

Yes, I thoroughly enjoyed the recent BBC4 documentary series, Comics Britannica. What surprised me was, considering how much they covered, I had the distinct feeling they skimmed over quite a bit too.

Conda said...

My niece now speaks Japanese. She spent a semester in Japan as an exchange student. She wants to be an international banker. Why? Manga. Japanese graphic novels.

Jim Murdoch said...

You rest my case.

just ira said...

I followed the link here from the Wordsy "comics in the classroom" article and I'm so glad I did. I'm very happy to see a post like this, as I've long been a believer in media equality (not equivalence).

You make some points I wish were brought up more often, such as in your first paragraph and in your statements about writing as communication and what helps our writing to matter.

I noticed you mentioned a documentary series called Comics Britannica. This seems like something I would enjoy seeing -- could you possibly tell me where I could get my hands on it?

Jim Murdoch said...

Thanks for the feedback, Ira. The programmes were broadcast on BBC4 only recently but I don't see them releasing it on DVD or anything. You might find the following website of some interest though:

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